Scotty Wright is very protective of jazz because the word has been used and abused for so long. But he’s philosophically good humoured about that.
“Jazz has been with us for 100 years, but not everybody knows much about it yet,” he said. “And Bangkok is still a relatively young jazz community. We can’t come over here and automatically assume that everybody knows what we’re doing.
“There is a tradition. Jazz is not a label you can velcro onto your coat. It comes from somewhere, it means something, and if you perform it, you’re part of that tradition. But people are confused about what it is. Education is needed. I don’t mean lectures _ just listening. And if you run a bar or a restaurant and invite people to come and listen to jazz _ make sure that that’s what those people get.”
And what we get in the Lobby Lounge of the Four Seasons Bangkok Hotel is a musical experience not unrelated to the entertainment music we’re used to, but with a lot more depth, invention, emotional range and excitement. Wright has a musical voice; the deep notes are warm, the high notes clear and in between they are firm and confident _ but liable to change at a moment’s notice.
“Let me tell you what I can’t do,” he confides, sipping on a tall glass of water. “I can’t sing a song the same way twice.”
Jazz is about inventiveness, among many other things. It tells the singer that if he or she chooses a song, it becomes his or her song. The singer must take possession of it and make of it what he can. He gets into the words and into the music, they get into him: his personality, mood, creativity and style. And the singer sends them right out again; but they’re not the same now. They have been through another layer in the creative process.
“Jazz singing started with Louis Armstrong,” said Wright. “Everybody was influenced by Louis, including Billie Holliday, and she always said so. She was the second great influence on singers in the 1930s and ’40s; then it was Ella (Fitzgerald) and Sarah (Vaughan). Listening to Billie taught me to focus on the lyrics; with Ella it was the rhythm, with Sarah the moods reflected in the voice.”
But there aren’t so many male jazz singers, it seems. Great entertainers were influenced by the music but few claimed to sing jazz. On his one visit to Bangkok some years ago, Tony Bennett spelled it out. “I can’t say I’m a jazz singer,” he said. “But I always work with jazz musicians because they’re the best for me.”
It was just about time for Scotty Wright to begin his show, and I mentioned the name of a singer who was a hero of mine, Jon Hendricks, an inspired lyricist who intricately fitted words to solos by great jazz musicians.
“You like Jon Hendricks? I’ll do a couple of his songs,” Scotty said, and settling in behind the piano he sprang into ‘Joy Spring’, a bright, bubbling kind of song made famous by the young trumpet player, Clifford Brown. He had a terrific impact on the jazz world for a few short years in the early 1950s, but died in a car crash when he was 25.
Wright recalled Clifford Brown in another song half way through the programme with ‘I Remember Clifford’, a lyrical tribute that celebrated his short-lived talent: “A trumpet sound that had a beauty all its own.”
Up went the tempo and the mood with the next song, a be-bop classic associated with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It has always been a favourite with jazzers and you frequently hear it today, though not usually in the vocal version. It’s a fast exciting number, and after the lyrics establishing the mystery and romance of a night beneath the Tunisian moon, Wright delivered his own scat version abandoning the words and letting the voice flow freely in imitation of a trumpet or a saxophone.
His scat singing is original; it actually sounds as if he’s singing very fast in another language _ I thought Swedish or Portuguese. It certainly stirs up the excitement though.
His next selection was an instrumental by the Count Basie band of the 1950s, ‘Li’l Darling’. This is a sentimental, tough-tender ballad with long lines that had the massed, fiery sections of the Basie band choked down to a breathless hush:
“Li’l Darlin’ may not be as pretty as some other girls you might see,
But my li’l darling’ only loves me”
There was a lot of tenderness in the songs Wright had chosen, as well as ironic humour, hip philosophy and pure “let the good times roll” enjoyment.
Finally, a bossa nova, where jazz and lounge music meet. Brazilian jazz samba was brought to universal popularity in the early 1960s when the prolific tenor player, Stan Getz, once a star of the cool school, became affected by the music of Jobim and Gilberto. They made a series of recordings together and the laid back bossa nova rhythm recalling urban tropical beaches has never gone out of style.
Scotty Wright chose ‘Chega de Saudade’, which I think might mean something like, “Girl from the neighbourhood” but which we know as ‘No More Blues’. He blended his percussive piano style (“I started as a drummer”) with the samba rhythm and sang partly in English, partly in scat.
It was an impressive performance: 12 songs each with a different atmosphere, a different tempo, a different mood all put together in a well thought-out sequence. I asked Scotty how many of the songs had lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
“Every one of them!” he said. “I didn’t set out to do that, but this is something you get with jazz _ if you have a good idea, you can go ahead and follow it.”
And you can go ahead and follow Scotty Wright at the Four Seasons Bangkok Hotel’s Lobby Lounge from 8pm every evening until October 31. Call 02-251-6127 for more information.